There are few things in life more decadent and delicious than a masterfully cooked steak paired perfectly with a nice glass of red wine. The aroma of the meat as you cut into it gently wafts upward, making your mouth water before your fork even leaves your plate. We're getting all hungry just thinking about it.
But when your steak-cooking skills aren't on point, things can go horribly awry. The artful scene described above can turn into a charred hockey puck of a meal in the blink of an eye. Luckily, all it takes is a little basic knowledge, and you'll be making steaks that will wow anyone who comes over to your house for dinner.
Here's what you need to know.
Steak intended to be grilled or seared (not braised or for a stew) should be of a high grade, if possible. But what are the different grades of beef, and what do they mean?
Grades are largely based on the amount of marbling, which refers to the amount of fat in the meat. The more marbling, the more tender, juicy and flavorful the meat is. "Prime," with its ample marbling, is the highest grade of meat, followed by "choice" and "select."
Prime meat is also younger than choice or select, which means the meat is usually more tender than that from older cattle.
Some cuts are naturally tender. Sirloin, tenderloin and filet mignon are all perfectly nice at the choice level — there's no need to spring for prime if you choose those cuts. Furthermore, if you use a flavorful marinade, which will help offset the lack of marbling, you can get away with using select-grade beef.
Some cuts can be slightly tough and benefit greatly from the extra marbling in the prime grade. Think rib-eye, strip steak and T-bone. These steaks aren't super tough at any grade, but at the prime grade, they really shine. They do happen to be naturally flavorful cuts, so choice grade can be good (and much less expensive) if you can find a steak with a lot of visible marbling.
Tougher, value cuts, like hanger, flank, skirt and tri-tip steak, are usually marinated before grilling, so you can go with choice grade. If you're planning on a long, slow cook, like in beef stew or pot roast, you can get away with select. But of course, it's not recommended that you choose a tough select-grade steak to simply season with salt and pepper and grill.
Marinades are a helpful way to not only inject flavor into lower grades of beef but also to tenderize tougher cuts. Flank steak and skirt steak are often marinated with a mixture that includes salt and an acid of some kind, which can help break down the tight protein strands that make the meat tough. For select cuts, a quick marinade can add extra flavor, but don't leave the meat in too long, or it may start to break down. Finally, you really shouldn't marinate prime beef — what's the point of spending the extra money if you can't even taste the meat itself?
There are two main schools of thought when it comes to getting the best sear on your steak.
The first is the initial sear. Get your pan screaming hot, add your steak, and don't flip it until the pan releases it easily, meaning that a nice crust has formed. This usually takes a couple of minutes. Add a pat of butter when you flip it, then finish cooking in a 300-degree F oven if it's a thick cut. It should take anywhere from four to eight minutes to reach an internal temperature of 120 degrees F for medium-rare.
This method works, but it can lead to a steak that's cooked unevenly inside, with a tougher, well-done perimeter slowly fading into a rarer center.
The second method is the reverse sear. The idea here is that you cook the steak gently at a low temperature until it's slightly underdone, then sear it in a superhot skillet with some butter and aromatics. The sear takes less time to develop since the meat is already hot, meaning there's less chance of overcooking the meat while waiting for a good crust to form.
Before you cook, salt your meat on both sides, and let it sit for about 40 minutes to bring it to room temperature.
How to grill steak: Cook the steak, covered, on the cool side of a charcoal grill. When it's a few degrees short of your preferred doneness, move it to the hot side of the grill to sear on both sides.
How to cook steak in a skillet: Add oil to your skillet, and heat it over high heat until smoking. Add your seasoned steak, and cook it until a crust begins to develop. You can flip your steak without disturbing the sear; in fact, it will help your steak cook evenly. Add some butter after the first four minutes, then continue to cook and flip until the steak has reached your desired doneness.
How to cook steak under the broiler: Place a skillet on an oven rack about 4 inches from the heat source, and turn on the broiler about 10 minutes before you want to put the steak in the oven. Once the skillet's hot, add the seasoned steak. Cook for about three minutes or until a crust has formed and the steak doesn't stick to the pan. Flip, and cook for three more minutes for medium-rare or until it reaches your desired level of doneness.
Doneness ranges from rare (with a red center) to well-done (with no pink in the center). Most purists recommend not going above medium for most cuts, though it's important that cuts with lots of fat and marbling are cooked at least past rare. Otherwise the fat in the marbling won't render at all, and there's no point in getting a well-marbled steak if it's not going to break down enough to make your meat nice and juicy.
The USDA recommends an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees F to ensure the safety of your meat.
Letting your meat rest allows its juices to redistribute, making the steak juicier throughout than if you were to cut right into it while it's screaming-hot. Let your steaks sit for about 10 minutes before you cut into them.
Different steaks can be cut different ways. But the truly important thing to remember is to cut tough steaks like flank, hanger and skirt steaks into thin slices across the grain. This will break up the long strands of protein that can make such cuts so difficult to chew.
And there you go, your cut-and-dried guide to buying and cooking steak. You'll be amazed at how easy it is now to turn out a flavorful, succulent steak like a pro.
Originally published March 2016. Updated September 2017.
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